Make Cat Vet Visits Less Scary

This is week one in a series about making vet visits easier for you and your cat. Here I’ll focus on the steps you can take before and during an appointment.

Why is it important to make vet visits less scary?

According to the American Association of Feline Practitioners, more than 50% of cats in the U.S. aren’t getting regular vet check-ups and routine preventive medicine. These things are not only important for your cat’s health but they are important for your wallet. Emergency vet bills and treatment for illness will cost more than early diagnosis and intervention.

Kitten with dilated pupils and flat ears
Please don't make me go!

For cats that do get to the vet, fear can make visits less useful. The biological responses to stress and fear can mask signs of illness or pain. A freaked out cat likely has a racing heartbeat which may mask a heart murmur. If a cat is preparing to bolt, they are less likely to show the limp that was seen at home.

Finally, cats that resort to aggression are a risk to both veterinary staff and their owners. If a cat can’t be safely handled, there will be limits to what can be done for them.

Before you need to go

Take the Fear Out of the Carrier

One major source of stress for both cat and owner is getting the cat in their carrier. If the day starts with a chase around the house and a forcible capture, there is very little chance that the vet visit will be a positive one. By taking time to get your cat comfortable with their carrier, you are eliminating one stressful part of the trip.

The best carrier for a vet visit is hard-sided with a removable top. This allows the vet to exam your cat without having to remove them from the carrier, another fight prevented.

Ideally, leave your cat’s carrier out all the time for them to use as a bed and to remove the association of carrier = vet. If you’re unwilling or unable to find a permanent place for the carrier, bring it out frequently when you don’t need to take your cat anywhere. The more that your cat sees the carrier without being put inside, the quicker they will get past their fear of it.

Cat carrier turned into hiding place and perch
A carrier can also be a hiding place and a perch.

Along with getting used to seeing the carrier, your cat can learn that the carrier leads to positive things.

  • Feed your cat their meals in the carrier.
  • Hide treats in the carrier. At first the treats may only disappear at night but give it time.
  • Teach your cat to go in on cue:
  • Start by cueing (with a word or a tap on the carrier) them to go in. If they don’t investigate on their own, toss a treat in to encourage them.
  • Give another extra tasty treat while they are in the crate.
  • Repeat
  • Practice building up by closing the door, then moving the carrier, then going to the car, and even driving around a bit. Every time finish with treats, a meal, or a play session.

(This post covers more about building positive associations and overcoming negative ones.)

Find the Right Vet

Luckily for cat owners, there are an increasing number of vets that understand the importance of low-stress handling and cat friendly practices. Talk to your vet about what systems they have in place to help your cat have a positive experience. There are a few trainings or certifications that veterinary professionals can complete to build their cat friendly practices; one of them is Fear Free Certification

Share your concerns with your vet and work with to build a plan to make vet visits as manageable as possible. Depending on your cat’s level of stress, your vet may prescribe anti-anxiety medication to be given before a visit or anti-nausea medication to help with car sickness.

The Big Day

Set The Stage

Once you’ve scheduled an appointment, make a point of leaving your cat’s carrier out for the week beforehand (if you don’t leave it out all the time). Put a familiar bed or blanket inside. Continue to leave special treats there for your cat to find and occasionally encourage your cat to go in for a treat toss or practice your carrier cue.

Spray a calming pheromone product on the bedding in the carrier at least 15 minutes before you want to put your cat inside. You can also add a little catnip if that will help your cat relax.

Some cats benefit from wearing a special compression wrap that can have a calming effect. The most commonly known version is a Thundershirt. Unfortunately, this kind of wrap can cause some cats to simply shutdown. While this stillness may seem better than the alternative, your cat’s view of the situation will be worse. If you want to try a Thundershirt, start by acclimating your cat to it at home. Dr. Sophia Yin posted a useful blog about using Thundershirts for vet visits.

Be Prepared

Bring some of your cat’s favorite treats along to create positive associations and distract your kitty if needed. An extra familiar smelling blanket or towel may help your cat feel comfortable on the exam table. If your cat enjoys playtime, bring a toy to give them something to do while waiting for the vet.

The Journey is as Important as the Destination

Cover the front and two sides of the carrier with a towel sprayed with pheromones before you leave the house. If it’s particularly hot or cold out, try to take a minute to get the car to a comfortable temperature before bringing your cat out. Place the carrier somewhere secure where it can’t tip. Consider if there are air vents or speakers right next to the cat, particularly if the carrier is on the floor of the car.

When You Arrive

If possible, don’t spend time in a busy waiting room, especially if there are dogs around. Call the front desk when you arrive; some clinics will text you when your room is ready so you can wait in the car. If you do wait in the lobby, keep the carrier covered and put it on a seat or your lap, not the floor.

Once you’re in the exam room, the vet staff will take care of you. Make sure you share anything you know about what your cat prefers and where they are sensitive. All the work you’ve done should start your cat in a much calmer state of mind and make the visit easier.

Go on to part two of the series to learn about smoothing the return home after a vet visit.

Part three gives you strategies for getting a reluctant cat into a carrier if you need an unexpected vet visit before you’ve worked through the steps in this post.

If your cat has a behavior problem that you need help solving, consider scheduling a private behavior consultation.